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Son's struggle with addiction leads mother to action against pain clinics

Lynn Locascio, 52, has been fighting for tighter controls on prescription pain pills after her son Bobby Palmisano, 26, struggled with addiction for four years. Locascio’s crusade persuaded Pinellas County officials to propose a moratorium on clinics that dispense painkillers.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Lynn Locascio, 52, has been fighting for tighter controls on prescription pain pills after her son Bobby Palmisano, 26, struggled with addiction for four years. Locascio’s crusade persuaded Pinellas County officials to propose a moratorium on clinics that dispense painkillers.

CRYSTAL BEACH — For almost four years, Lynn Locascio tried to convince herself that her son didn't have a drug problem.

She brushed aside two arrests, his weight loss and the widening distance between them.

Bobby was just "dabbling," the 52-year-old payroll administrator kept telling herself.

Her moment of truth came in 2006, when Bobby's stepbrother came down for breakfast in tears. His brother, he said, is an addict. They had to do something to keep him from overdosing or dying.

That day, Locascio asked his probation officer to arrest him, saying he wasn't living at home as his probation required. Later, she begged a judge to keep him jailed so he could dry out.

It was the start of Locascio's crusade against prescription drug abuse that helped prompt Pinellas County to propose a moratorium on new pain clinics.

Pinellas leads the state in prescription drug deaths, and federal authorities call it a hotbed for "pill mills" that supply traffickers elsewhere in the country. It's easy for police to catch users, Locascio said, but not enough is being done to catch and punish the clinics and doctors that supply them.

"Somebody needs to step up," she said. "It's gotten worse."

• • •

It all started in 2002. Bobby Palmisano was 17, a high school senior on his way to the Gasparilla festival with a friend, when the car hit them.

A doctor prescribed the pain pill Vicodin to help Palmisano cope with a ruptured disc and a hurt shoulder.

The pain didn't stop. He asked for more pills.

His hurt became an addiction that was easy to feed.

When his orthopedic office cut him off, he went elsewhere.

By carrying MRI images of his injuries, he shopped around for doctors to give him new prescriptions. During that time the pain pill industry and clinics were growing, so he had an array of options.

Vicodin gave way to stronger drugs, like OxyContin and its various forms. Palmisano would pop them, break them, snort them or shoot them up a vein on his hand. He traded pills with friends.

His mother, meanwhile, brushed aside the signs of abuse.

When Palmisano was arrested on a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge, she shook it off. When her husband confronted her with questions about his behavior, she waved him off.

Palmisano started to avoid his family, but his mother still saw him as the good boy she raised.

He came from a nice home near the gulf in Crystal Beach, he couldn't be an addict, she thought. Sure, he'd had to weather his parents divorce and then financial troubles of his blended family, but he was still the kid who used to play at the park with grandpa down the street.

Except he wasn't anymore.

• • •

When Palmisano was arrested on marijuana possession in April 2005 — his second arrest for the drug — police found a slew of prescription drugs in his car.

He was working as a bartender. Strung out, he walked into a Dunedin convenience store after 3 a.m. He was wearing sunglasses and left the car running.

A suspicious police officer found marijuana and a bottle of OxyContin on Palmisano, a police report said. In his car, four more pill bottles were found.

Checking later, investigators found physicians and a dentist that Palmisano had misled.

A week later, he was arrested on a charge of doctor shopping.

The arrests didn't turn out to be the wakeup call he needed.

Palmisano kept using after adjudication was withheld on the charge in January 2006. His 18-month probation required him to live at home, but he moved out anyway.

Within weeks, he wrecked a car because he passed out, according to a police report. Two days after that, he was in Helen Ellis Hospital after taking too many pills. He knew he was addicted, but he couldn't stop.

"It makes you feel all alone," said Palmisano, now 26.

The next day is when his mother and stepbrother decided to call his probation officer to turn him in.

When he was busted, he was high again.

A month later, his mother begged Judge Linda Allan to send him to a serious rehab program.

"To watch this vibrant, smart, caring intelligent young man go downhill over the past two years breaks my heart and his, too," Locascio wrote. "I know the person who once existed is still in there."

• • •

Palmisano was sentenced to 12 months in jail. But he dried out and got early out in August on probation.

He had one slip, violating his probation by drinking alcohol in March 2007. He stopped drinking after that, and smoking. He got into shape and now works at the same construction company as mom.

He said he hasn't taken a pill since being jailed. "I have no interest in doing that. It almost gets to the point it disgusts me. It has killed people. It almost killed me," Palmisano said.

Locascio got going, too. She started an online group, Parents Against Prescription Drug Addiction. She went to the Purdue Pharma sentencing in Virginia after the company was charged with misleading people about OxyContin's addictive nature in July 2007. She was accompanied by Julie Rinaldi of Tampa, whose daughter died from it and other drugs. Bobby came too, telling his story.

Locascio said she started becoming a regular at the drug court she had brushed off years earlier, telling her story to parents and youths facing violations. And she fought to slow the spread of pain clinics that dispense drugs with little oversight.

"They hold this little magic piece of paper," she said of scripts.

As Broward and Miami-Dade counties imposed moratoriums, Locascio e-mailed Pinellas County commissioners in December urging them to do the same. But she singled out Susan Latvala, whom she met a decade ago when Latvala was a School Board member and Locascio wanted a bus stop in the neighborhood.

Latvala was a receptive ear. She had seen the ills of abuse as a School Board member, and at home. Her son has struggled with addiction. She also has heard reports of the county's escalating problem from the medical examiner.

Saying the state failed to act strongly enough, Latvala, a candidate for re-election this year, unveiled the proposed moratorium and called for a task force to recommend local solutions. It could save lives, she said, knowing one mom in particular who could explain how and why.

"Some people get their voice when something bad like this happens to them," Latvala said.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

. FAST FACTS

If you go

The Pinellas County Commission will hold a public hearing on a proposed ordinance that would put a moratorium on new pain clinics while a task force examines how to regulate them. The meeting starts at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday at 315 Court St. in Clearwater.

Son's struggle with addiction leads mother to action against pain clinics 05/01/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 1, 2010 10:38pm]

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